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Robots, 'now among us,' hit Smithsonian

With one million robots in use, museum introduces collection ranging from R2-D2 to Marv, one of the smallest in the world

Sandia Labs' tiny Marv robot. WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian Museum of American History on Tuesday added a number of robotic technologies to its collection, including what may have been some of the smallest robots in the world.

One cubic inch-size robot, called Marv, short for Mini Autonomous Robot Vehicle , was developed in 1996-97 at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Lab. Its footprint is not much larger than a quarter, and it was cobbled together from commercially available parts, including a microprocessor, that moved on wheels.

The Smithsonian's robot collection is a blend of the fanciful, historic and current. It includes Star Wars robots R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as a 450 year old mechanical robot, outwardly a monk that is programmed to perform a number of functions, such as eye, arm and leg movement. The museum also has a large IT collection .

Marv is now included among the 100 robotic artifacts in Smithsonian's collection. There are more than a million industrial robots in use, mostly for rudimentary tasks, said Carlene Stephens, a robotics collection curator. But she uses that figure on commercial adoption to make the point that "robots are now among us."

Barry Spletzer, a retired engineer and scientist from Sandia, worked on Marv, an effort that began "almost on a whim."

Spletzer, who was at the museum today, was particularly pleased at the prospect that Sandia's robot donations may help expose young people to the challenges of engineering.

"The one thing we need to do in this country is grow more engineers -- we're not doing that very well right now, and this is where we start," Spletzer said.

"I always wanted to be an inventor all my life -- I actually got to do it," Spletzer said. "I'd love to see a lot more kids do that."

The initial effort at Sandia was to build a tiny robot without special funding or parts. The point was to essentially see "how small you can make a robot," said Spletzer.

Other tiny robots followed including one, Marv Jr., that was featured in Time Magazine in 2001.

The purpose of small robots is to get into small spaces and conduct inspections and searches, and some where even built to jump over walls and buildings, said Spletzer.

Gill Pratt, program manager for robotic science at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says it won't be too long before robots are available that can clean up a table, put dishes in a washer and then stack them in a cabinet.

But Pratt isn't expecting robots to do things that can do much beyond "a very slice of what humans can do well."

IBM 's Watson, for instance, in its competition on TV's Jeopardy, doesn't have common sense or really understand the topics it had to deal with on the game show, said Pratt. "It's just particularly good at the extraction task of finding those answers," he said.

What Pratt wants are robots that are able to go into a dangerous environment to conduct certain tasks, such as fetch a particular item. "I want to stop using people for those tasks, particularly if it is in a military environment," he said.

The Smithsonian also added donations relating to the development of autonomous mobile robot technology by Velodyne, including a laser vision system used in DARPA's grand challenge races.

The Smithsonian's collecting efforts will, of course, be ongoing. "When there are breakthroughs that we can identify as historically significant in the history of robotics, we want to collect them," Stephens said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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